Category Archives: NZ poems

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast

Naming the Beast, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2022

You don’t want book reviews to diminish your reading experience, to lead you up the garden path of expectation, to lay false trails and unreliable hopes. Imagine the review as a tasting room where you let a morsel of the book swirl on your tongue, releasing flavour, leaving a vital aftertaste. You don’t want book jargon, you just want an aromatic taste (precursor) of the writing, the ideas, the feelings, the connections.

Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast is poetry gold. It is the kind of book you savour slowly, absorbing brocade textures, the sumptuous threads, the surprising patterns, satisfying layers. This is poetry that is sonorous, sensual, startling. It got me thinking about how enmeshed I become in certain poetry collections. How I am laid bare as a reader. How I am spiked and soothed. I get caught in a poem, no question.

Elizabeth writes about being in someone else’s poem:

In somebody else’s poem it’s goddamned desolate. I’m in a house
with no windows; just venetian blinds on blank walls. The rotary phone
bleats hircine, and I hold a real gun to my head. In a poem, the gun goes off.
I wake in another poem, planting succulents because love goes as far
as my toes, and no further.

from ‘We write what we know when we run out of things we don’t’

I could simply pitch this as a collection of beasts and wild(er)ness, because beasts and wildness are an integral part, but it is also a collection of time, mothers, luck, castles, fire, relatives. The subject matter roves and ranges, at times resembling stream of consciousness connections, lily pad leaps, edgeways writing. The music is symphonic. The lexicon is extraordinary; words feed subterranean narratives and dreamscapes, pungent fields of details. There is plainness and there is opulence. There is the off-real and there is the hyperreal.

Celebrate the richness of poetry, the allure of detail thickets, but there is too the invitation of the unsaid, the vibrating space, the reading alcoves.

I admire the collection’s invisible stitching, the behind-the-scenes craft of the poet that produces such poetic fluency. Yet at other times, the making of poetry is poignantly visible. Poetry comes protagonist, a character moving in and out of shadow and light.

Ah, I have used book jargon, kindled your expectations crazily, so I return to my idea of a tasting room – I will hold out a tasting platter for you, and let some of Elizabeth’s lines spark your reading tastebuds.

First, bark the moon. Make ceremony from a stammer,
from a steaming crockpot of two-minute noodles,
from the way the taxi driver sucks his bottom teeth as he drives you north.

from ‘Instructions on how to lose a mind’

My mother is the night owl. My father is the tussock,
I own memories, alone. My celestial object is done for.
The rust core of a lamp that was already out – a red star coughing
though light-years of average days, days spent picking lemons
and walking average suburbs, nodding at ordinary dogs.

from ‘Stolen pepeha’

We pipette soluble proteins like mothers do. Mothers are no minor characters,
who arrange herbs like rubrics, under the soft light of a kettle stove.
Home is a fume-cupboard where legend is filtered like breath.
Our mothers huddle around pantries of cod liver oils, vitamins, and bleach.
Their hands haul the sun over the eastern hillocks, like an axiom.

from ‘Immunohistochemistry’

I want to say I know this place with my eyes closed.
I can run, butt naked, through cabbage rows and dairy cows,
and the Waikato will annunciate my name with a branding iron
and an ear tag that speaks to a bloodline sniffed out by regret.
I am writing in my first language. My second is shame.
When I dream I dream words I cannot spell.

from ‘God of nations’

If I were a robot, I would be in a better poem.
If I were a person, I’d want the telephone wires to hum like stars,
and the stars to be unavoidable.

form ‘Hard sell’

Get a copy of this book, open it, pick a poem, take a road trip within its lines, inhabit as a small retreat, sojourn in a series of alcoves. This collection is gold.

Elizabeth Morton grew up in suburban Auckland. Her poetry and prose have been published in New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and online. She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Morton has accrued many literary acknowledgements for her work, and her previous collection of poetry, This is Your Real Name (OUP, 2020), was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The manuscript of Naming the Beasts was shortlisted for the 2021 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.

Otago University Press author page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Rebecca Hawkes’ CEMETERY LAWNMOWER

CEMETERY LAWNMOWER


“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. … Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

—Robert Macfarlane in Underlands

tomb with a view – earthed on a volcano’s seaward slope
I kneel in fresh-cut lawn – not knowing whose bones
decompose below – only interested in the sheen
of this headstone – a slab of flashing feldspar
hewn in loving memory – my mother the geologist

surveys well-kempt lanes – reading the names
on strangers’ graves – the cemetery lawnmower
hums around us – clippers licking to and fro
constant as the waves – eroding the basalt cliff below
that threatens all our bones – even diamond gravestones aren’t forever

nor this rich labradorite – it births aurora borealis
in the right light – glints of scintillating indigo
blue morpho – sips of methylated lavender
a happenstance of kissing crystal facings – turned brilliant
in crushing heat – how we are all made

anew through strain – the only constant thing is change
in this restless earth – my mother sees these shifts
like a slow-motion picture – technicolour aeons
on the geological map – this is her gift to her children
she invented two new deaths – but gave us all of time

etched on a headstone – if we can learn to read igneous
glints of a frenzied planetary history – continents stretch like cats
and we are very small fleas – we do not live for long
we make our homes – in the fertile shadow
of the volcano – we build cities on fault lines

that fell cathedrals – we pray for everyone we love to live forever
then where there are graves – the lawnmowers graze
where there are cemeteries – there are rising stones
and women – who want to know the names not written on those monuments
but inside their very substance– ancient incantations in crystal language

tonight after the wake – we will gather on this hillside
to light fireworks – with a stray roman candle
the dry cut grass will blaze – brilliant as lava on this dormant caldera
and through it all the cemetery lawnmower – will hum darkly among the graves
tending to them – until the real volcano wakens

from a dream beyond all naming – reclaims the fallen and their stones
sowed like seeds beneath the lawn – returns us all
to the molten cradle – where the start of all life flows in liquid light
the sound of shifting continents – sure and steady as a mother’s heartbeat

Rebecca Hawkes

Rebecca Hawkes is a poet, painter, editor. Her first chapbook of poems Softcore coldsores appeared in the reignition of the AUP New Poets series (2019). Her debut collection Meat Lovers (AUP 2022) was awarded The Laurel Prize Best International First Collection 2022. Rachel edits the poetry journal Sweet Mammalian with Nikki-Lee Birdsey, and has co-edited an anthology of poetry on climate change, No Other Place To Stand (AUP 2022). Raised on a Mid-Canterbury sheep and beef farm, Rebecca now lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington. She is a founding member of popstar poets’ posse Show Ponies and holds a Masters degree in nonfiction creative writing with Distinction from the International Institute of Modern Letters. 

Rebecca Hawkes website

Auckland University Press author page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Robert Sullivan’s ‘Rākaihautū’

 

Rākaihautū 

thinks about driving to Waihao 
to fetch some uku
to make a koauau. 
It’s at Waihao Box
where you said the local boaties
couldn’t stand walking 
around your group of mana whenua
collecting uku for taonga pūoro.
I want to play taonga pūoro
like you. It’ll improve my poetry
readings where I need to lean
against the fourth wall to be heard.

 
It ain’t easy. I still can’t
click my fingers properly
let alone make a clay flute
in my head. It’s the idea
that some non-Māori boaties
are out there waiting
to troll me for holding up
their kayak adventure 
when this billy goat
wants a koauau journey
for healing. Āuē. I’m still 
in my dressing gown. 
If only Tangaroa
would be my valet.
Tomorrow it’s 
Mutuwhenua.
I don’t even know
the tides.

Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan belongs to the Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu iwi. He has won awards for his editing, poetry, and writing for children. Tunui Comet is his eighth collection of poetry. Robert’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Massey University. He is a great fan of all kinds of decolonisation.

Poetry Shelf: Emma Neale’s ‘Threat’

Threat

The school bell shrieks its chalk
down the daylight’s spine.
Is this a drill, can you smell smoke?
No need to.
It already clouds the teachers’ faces.
The silence around the alarm’s
frantic hammer and anvil
says this is no rehearsal.
The staff are a paradox,
gentle riot squad
barely exchanging glances.
 ‘Move, girls. Now. Move.’

We’re quick; we’re orderly,
we ditch our bags and books,
soon gather in the quadrangle,
fish for shooting in a barrel.

The sunshine knows how to do surreal.
It touches each one of us on the crown:
black and blonde and red and brown
all gilded. It lifts a blue blur like aura
around even the bitches’ shoulders;
gives their white school shirts
the Persil elegance of swans.
Every one of us is illuminated
into something brighter
more urgent than beautiful:
for now we catch the acrid rumor
that spurts like flame along fuse-wire

bomb threat

we swallow with tongues like flour
we breathe through throats like paper
we shift on our cattle-truck haunches
as like jet fighters in formation
all the dread and sadness roar over;

someone mentions Libya,
someone mentions their father
who thins with terminal cancer,
another mentions their mother
who night-walks too young in dementia,
another says a boy has molested her
so now she can’t keep down what she eats
another’s dreams of nuclear fallout
mean she hardly ever sleeps.

As we stand there the winch
of patience winds higher
tense with expectation
of thunder
shatter
sirens
fire

yet there is no bomb

and still we could never call this hoax:
for even now we carry
the solid strop of time
the knife that whets and whets;
and gripped inside our chests
a red grenade of fear.

Emma Neale

Emma Neale, a Dunedin based writer and editor, is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant (Otago University Press). In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Airini Beautrais ‘Wasted youth’

Wasted youth

When you were clear-eyed
When your breasts burst out of you like blossoms
Your legs brown willow wands
Your hair like golden fire
You determined to be strange
Wore bad 80s tracksuits
Hair in a low ponytail tied with a scrunchie
Frumpy centre part and frizz, a frown
Under thick eyebrows
Wore old man pants
Hacked off your hair
Grew it back without grooming
Went to the ball in jandals and your grandma’s dress
Smelling like dust
Wore no bra and your mum’s old skivvy
Ate cake in the street
Made homemade dreadlocks
That stunk of skin and rotting thread
Went swimming in baggy boyleg trunks
Wore old sneakers from a skip bin
Smoked weed out of toilet rolls, apples,
plastic bottles, bits of bamboo
Threw all your costume jewellery in the clothing bin
Bought a pair of heels and never wore them
Gave them to the opshop
Slept with stoners, drunks, deadbeats and layabouts
Tried to get jobs in bare feet
Threw out everything made of leather
Wore thai fisherman pants and no undies
Refused to shave anything
Hacked your hair off again
Wore a bad 80s jacket
Dyed it patchy pink with DYLON cold
Cut your own bangs crooked
Got paint all over yourself
Wore clown pants
Carried everything in a dirty backpack
No spare change no time of day
Get lost, fuck off, nothing to see here
Like a tree dropping fruit
On the pavers of an abandoned courtyard

Airini Beautrais

Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.

Poetry Shelf conversations: Helen Rickerby

How to live through this

We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Helen Rickerby, from How to Live

I am stuck at home, not doing author trips, not catching up with friends in person, never hanging out in cafes, so I’ve been doing email conversations with poets whose work I have loved. A couple have sublime new books out, but with others it was an excuse to revisit writing I have carried with me.

Last up in this series is Helen Rickerby. Helen is a writer, editor and publisher. She has published a number of poetry collections, including Cinema (Mākaro Press, 2014) and How to Live, which won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry (Auckland University Press, 2019). Helen was co-managing editor of the literary journal JAAM from 2005–2015 and single-handedly runs Seraph Press, the boutique poetry press.

I have been a fan of Helen’s poetry for a long time, but she has also published a number of my own collections (The Baker’s Thumbprint 2013, New York Pocket Book 2016 and The Track 2019). I have loved working on each book with her.

Seraph Press’s list of publications include some of my favourite poets in Aotearoa: Anna Jackson, Bernadette Hall, Nina Mingya Powles, Anahera Gildea, Vana Manasiadis, Helen Llendorf, Maria McMillan, Johanna Aitchison, Vivienne Plumb – plus the terrific anthology, Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Poets in Translation (2018).

It has been such a pleasure to touch base with books and poetry in email conversations..

Paula: In these tilted and jagged times diversions are so important. For me, reading and secret writing projects are essential. So many sublime books are being published in Aotearoa and around the world at the moment, of all genres. What has helped you? Any books that have lifted or anchored or transported you? I can so identify with your words in Chris Tse’s new Auckland University Press book, Super Model Minority (‘these poems cut my heart before warming it’).

Helen: Yes, I’m also sticking pretty close to home just now, and while I am still seeing my friends, mostly in our own homes, I am also needing to find my joys near at hand. Over the last week while I’ve been finding a lot of comfort and joy, and also a bit of challenge, in creative non-fiction – particularly in books that could loosely be described as memoir, but which are much more. There’s something about the mixture of narrative, life, ideas and poetic writing (if not actual poetry) that’s my thing right now. Recent highlights include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Patricia Grace’s From the Centre and especially Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy.

During last year’s lockdown a friend left a care package of books in my letterbox. One of the books was Real Estate, the third (red) volume in Deborah Levy’s trilogy. It’s kind of about her making a new life for herself after her daughters leave home, but it’s so much more than a memoir, as are the other two books in the trilogy. It’s poetic and philosophical and, collage-like, full of quotes from other works of literature that she’s having conversations with – I felt an affinity, it felt allied with what I’ve been doing in poetry in recent years. I read my way backwards through the trilogy, borrowing the second (yellow) volume, The Cost of Living, from a friend who lives downstairs and, as soon as we got to Level 3, buying the first (blue) book, Things I Don’t Want to Know, from the lovely Volume bookshop in Nelson (because no Wellington bookshops had it and I knew Volume could get it to me quickly, and I needed it immediately). And then when I finished that, I started reading them all again, forwards this time. I found them so calming, like the eye of a storm. I was finding everything a bit hard at the time, mainly in my head, and I would just take a little bit of time with these books and I could feel myself calming down. Even though her experiences were very different to mine, I loved the way in these books she kind of rises up above her life and looks down on it, and writes about it, from a calm height. It made me feel like I could do the same.

I confess to being someone who is looking for quite a lot of comfort in life and literature, but I also know that growth doesn’t usually come from comfort, and a bit of discomfort is really important. Super Model Minority is a fabulous book, and one that did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Some of the things he’s writing about are uncomfortable and even painful, and there’s definitely anger. But the poems make you think, and make you see and appreciate, and in the midst of it all there’s humour and hope and beauty. I’m always keen on some humour and hope and beauty.

Paula: Ah – now I am dead keen to read the Levy trilogy. And yes! That’s exactly what Chris’s collection does. And you do come away with the word hope.

I want to talk about how I love your poetry, but first, which poets would you choose to have conversations with (let’s say dead or alive, home or abroad). Poets who have affected your travels and engagements as a writer and a reader.

Helen: Hmmm, that’s a tricky question. I have a bit of a fear of meeting my heroes, in case it’s terribly disappointing, or they don’t like me (or I don’t like them), or we had a mediocre conversation. So much pressure! Also, quite a few of my heroes are women I don’t think I would get along with very well: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, etc… I also feel that if I really love someone’s work, I don’t necessarily want to talk to them about it, I wouldn’t want to break the magic. So I would be very nervous to talk to Anne Carson, for example, even though her work has been very important and inspiring to me in showing the breadth of what poetry can do. I was reminded today of the wonderful book-length poem Memorial by Alice Oswald today, and I would be interested in talking to her about that. While it was Heather Cristle’s The Crying Book, which is not strictly speaking poetry, that really got me, she is a poet I might risk talking to. I have had great conversations about poetry with poets who are my actual friends, perhaps particularly with Anna Jackson, who I’ve run a few conferences with, though we talk about other things too. From the past, Sappho would be very interesting to converse with, though we’d need to use some kind of translator. I would be intrigued to meet Byron, but it might not be poetry we’d talk about.

Paula: Ha! I never thought of that. Yes, I feel nervous when I review a book as that feels like a conversation that could go terribly wrong on my part. I want to navigate the paths, corridors, alcoves, wide open windows of a book and make discoveries. No interest in listing all the things a poetry collection doesn’t do.

What matters to you when you write a poem? What do you want your poem to do or be or feel or activate (I keep coming up with more and more verbs)?

Helen: I probably have as many answers to that question as poems I’ve written  possibly more! And what matters to me changes over time, and maybe changes back. But some things that come to mind are to capture something   a thought, a feeling, an experience, the thinking through of an idea, an image, a memory. I want to communicate, but not too clearly or simply, I want to create layers and textures and possibly contradictions. I want the reader to get something out of my poem, but I don’t want them to necessarily be able to decode the whole poem. I don’t want to be able to decode the whole poem. I want the sound and language to feel right for the poem, and I want the words to be beautiful, even if only ugly beautiful. I want it to feel fresh to me and/or the reader, but I want it to feel true to them in some way, which is not the same thing as factual. I want the poem to be more than the sum of its parts, and I want the poem to be a bit bigger than me, maybe wiser?  I want to open some doors or windows in my own head, and the heads of at least some of my readers. I want to feel like the poem doesn’t have too much, or too little – I have a bit of a thing for a long, spacious poem, when appropriate. I want to feel that it’s a bit worthwhile, in some or other way. I don’t want to reread it and think ‘Yeah, and so?’ I want to have learned something, through writing the poem, even if only about myself. I’m not sure I can do all of these things at once!

from ‘How to Live’, in How to Live

Paula: How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019) is one of my all time favourite poetry collections. It is a book I am taking to hospital with me. I so loved reviewing it on Poetry Shelf. Like many contemporary poets you are cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable. So richly layered. In fact everything you say above!

‘How to live’ is a question open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it. (Poetry Shelf)

If windows and doors open in your head as you write a poem they open in mine as I read the collection. Particularly in view of the presence of women. What did you discover writing this book?

Helen: Aww, thank you Paula! I learned a lot while writing this book, though I finished it more than three years ago, and so have forgotten a lot! It was definitely a book of thinking through –  and feeling through – and making connections. So there’s a lot of me in there, and my own thoughts and experiences and attempts at figuring things out, but there’s also a lot of research. I learned quite a bit about philosophy and about philosophers, and that got me thinking about why I didn’t really know of many, if any, women philosophers. Turns out the main reason is the same reason we don’t know about a lot of women from the past: because they’ve been erased and forgotten. I am always quite delighted to discover women from the past who have done cool things – there are lots of them. It was also while writing this book that I started thinking about the way my poetry, and the work of other poets that I’d been noticing, was crossing over with essay, and I got quite excited about that. I’m really interested in poetry that explores and thinks through ideas – that journey – I’m probably less interested in the destination. I love the way poetry can leap over gaps and fragments, happily hold contradictions and layers and non-binaries. Both/And.

Palimpsest is a word I have to look up every time
A palimpsest is a parchment from which the words have been scraped off so it could be used again
but the old words still show through

Earth / late summer

This is the place of intersection your life
my life
my time
and the little I know about yours the little I know about mine
the little I know

from ‘Ban Zhao’

Paula: I so love the title and the poem it references. I am wondering if poetry so often responds to this question, overtly or opaquely. It made me want to write my own version, borrowing your title. Did anything in particular prompt the poem?

Helen: It’s a question I think we all need to keep asking ourselves all the time, for our whole lives. There’s no one answer, and the answer for each of us keeps changing, but in order to be a good person in society and a happy person in our own lives, I think we need to think about this, and also to act. Everyone could write a book of this title, and I would love to read yours! Multiple books probably – I have continued developing my ideas about how to live since I finished writing this book. They now involve more fun and dancing.

My original idea for this book was quite different, but with the same title. About a decade ago Sean, my husband, was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be of a very treatable kind, which was very fortunate, but the whole dealing with the medical system, let alone mortality, was a bit of a thing. I was also becoming increasingly aware that I was no longer a youth, and of the finiteness of time, and wanting to make the most of that time. During all of this, especially during Sean’s treatment and recovery, I was writing poems about this experience and exploring the idea of living as in not dying, and living as in really living. These poems weren’t entirely successful, but they had something in them, and I ended up cutting them up and using them as the basis of the long title poem, which explores these same ideas, as well considering ideas about what poetry is, and, you know, everything!

Paula: Is there a poem (or two) which has fallen into charismatic place for you? Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry. Ah, really the whole collection, magnetic, eclectic, electrifying.

Helen: I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question. Of my own work? This might not be what you mean, but I had a similar experience with both the first poem in the book ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ (which was the last poem I wrote for the book) and the last poem in the book ‘How to live’, where I had this idea of what I wanted to do in the poem, and I had all these fragments, but I didn’t know how to make the poem I wanted it to be. But with each, while feeling like I would NEVER get there, I had a kind of epiphany about the form, which gave me the tone, which made everything else fall into place. I have found this encouraging since – that you can feel completely hopeless, but if you keep on going you might be quite close to creating the thing you want to. I think this recent tweet by Heather Cristle evokes this beautifully: ‘I love it when form writes the book for you. It is like you are trying to screw something together and form is watching you impatiently until it says ‘just give it to me’ and you do and form puts everything together so fast while you lie down admiring its movement and shape.’

from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman‘ Hipparchia of Maroneia c. 350–c. 280 BC

Paula: I was over the moon when it won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. Did the judges recognise something in the book you hadn’t seen? I love it when that happens – when you look through the open windows of a poem and things surprise you. And how was it winning the award?

Helen: It was all a bit of a blur! Google photos tells me it was two years ago this week. It was also at the end of the first lockdown – quite a nice way to end it. I was in complete shock – I was pretty certain that Anne Kennedy would win, and when they said my name there was quite a lot of screaming (and a little bit of swearing) at my house. Book awards are weird things. I’m fully aware that they’re never an objective ranking, which isn’t even possible, but are just what those three judges managed to agree on at that time, but it was still very lovely that it was my book they agreed on. I don’t think there was anything the judges said about my book that surprised me, but I appreciated that they got what I was exploring. And winning meant that more people sought out my book, which was also lovely.

Paula: I find myself drawn to poems of all lengths – for a while I favoured the long poem as I could carry it in my pocket and keep adding to it as I mothered and worked and cooked. Now I quite like small poems, sweet mouthfuls that are verging on stream of consciousness. What do you like about the long poem?

Helen: There is something nice about a little gem of a poem, but I do love a good long poem the most. I love the way it has space to breathe and move and meander and be a bit messy. To look at things from a bunch of angles and maybe not favour any of them. I have come to accept that I’m a digressive conversationalist, perhaps a digressive person in pretty much everything except my day job (I’m an editor/technical writer, which is all about plain-language, clear structure, unambiguity – basically the opposite of poetry), and I really enjoy interesting digression in what I’m reading, and what I’m writing. Though, it won’t be entirely a digression, because it will almost certainly connect to everything else in some kind of way. A long poem has enough time to set up resonances within itself, it can tell stories rather than just capture moments. Not that I don’t love a great poem that just captures a moment! And because I’ve been interested in the essay poem, longer poems have more space for the essaying, the thinking through, the exploration. And I guess they have the space to be about several things at once, and about the connections between those things. Probably I should give some examples, but I’m immediately struck by everything I would miss out! Possibly my all-time favourite long poem, and all-time favourite poem, is ‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson, which isn’t quite book length (it comes in at 45 pages), but which manages to be about the end of a relationship, Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, a visit to the narrator’s mother, and the decline of a father with dementia, and some other stuff, and is all beautifully written.

Paula: I am delighted to see so many boutique presses springing up – bringing us such a wider range of voices. You have published a number of my poetry collections though Seraph Press, and it has been a special relationship. I have loved the look of each book, am grateful for your editing. The collections are all so different. I love that! And I discovered Nina Mingya Powles through you! How does publishing the work of poetry impact on your own writing? You put so much love in to the books you published. What matters to you when you make the book of someone else?  [do you think publishing is something you are moving away from now to give more time to your own work?] 

Helen: I do love making books, both as collections of words and ideas, and also as physical objects. And I have loved working with different writers to get their words out into the world. Some of them, like you, were fully formed poets when I started working with you, while others – such as Nina, who was only 21 when I published her first chapbook containing some of the very first poems she’d written – were just beginning and I’ve got to see them bloom in close quarters. I have made some great connections and am really proud of making books that I think are beautiful and worthwhile. I try to work with each author so we’re both happy with what we’re putting out, and happy with how it looks. Because it’s something that I do in my own time and almost entirely with my own money, I have had to basically be in love with the books to make it worthwhile. It has taken a bit of a toll on my own writing sometimes, because when I’m working on someone else’s book, that has obligations and deadlines, whereas my own writing doesn’t and gets pushed back. Especially as I’m not an especially great multi-tasker, am usually also working a day job or two, and am by nature quite lazy and so my inclination is generally to just muck around instead. As much as I love publishing, or rather some aspects of publishing (because I do pretty much everything, there are definitely things I’m less interested in and less skilled at – like marketing, for example), after getting a bit burned out I am having a hiatus on the publishing front, and focusing on my own writing, and my own life, for a while. I’m sure I haven’t published my last book though!

Meanwhile, I’m really excited to see the new publishers coming through, doing things their own way, getting important work out there, and increasingly being noticed by mainstream awards. This not at all an exhaustive list, but I’m thinking right now of Anahera Press, Compound Press, We Are Babies and new kid on the block Taraheke | Bushlawyer. Exciting times!

Paula: Indeed – so exciting to see the new presses supporting terrific new voices. I feel like we have had a very long lunch, with the most delicious food and roving conversation. It means a lot, to be part of wide stretching poetry communities.

Helen reads ‘How to Live Through This’

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen Rickerby’s ‘Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

Poem ‘How to die’ at the Spin Off

Seraph Press

Auckland University Press page

Mākaro Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Robert Sullivan’s Tūnui | Comet

Tūnui | Comet, Robert Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 2022

6.

I’d written ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’
because it reminded me of buses in Honolulu

at the airport and Waikiki. The open-air buses
aren’t like decolonisation though. Decolonisation

is not worrying about cultural identity,
and not translating and not having to explain

things like a family and hapū do such as wānanga
because the wānanga is the explanation

or learning mōteatea by our ancestors,
or prophecies of our spiritual tūpuna, or sadness

at the fighting on the other side. These
decolonisations make up life.

 

from ‘Te Tāhuhu Nui’

Robert Sullivan belongs to the iwi Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu and Kāi Tahu. His debut collection, Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999), marked the arrival of a significant poet, and has been numerously reprinted. Robert has published a number of collections since, and with Reina Whaitiri edited Puna wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry, and with Reina and Albert Wendt, Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, anthologies of Polynesian poetry in English.

Robert’s new collection, Tūnui | Comet, stands on the shoulders (hearts, lungs, mind) of everything he has written and edited to date. Voice has carried his poetry, his family, his whakapapa. Voice is the weave that remembers the touchstones of his previous collections: Tāmaki Makaura, the Far North, colonisation, Cook, family. I have never forgotten his premise that voice carries us. And voices carries this collection, all that it holds close, all that it challenges. It is there in ‘Kawe Reo / Voices Carry’:

Voice carries us from the foot of Rangipuke / Sky Hill / Albert Park
to the Wai Horotiu stream chuckling down Queen Street carrying
a hii-haa-hii story—from prams and seats with names and rhymes,
words from books and kitchen tables.

In writing poetry, Robert is speaking to for with from. He is conversing and he is voyaging, and his writing is the river flowing, the currency of water and air vital. Each poem sits in generous space on the page, each poem given ample room in which to breathe, in an open font, allowing space for the reader to pause and reflect.

The collection weaves in past, present, and future – who he is, was and will be – mythologies, histories. There is the drive to write in te reo Māori, to nourish the language’s roots, to write poems without English translations, to insist upon a need to speak and grow with his own language.

Robert acknowledges he writes within a community of poets who have shaped him. He carries a history of reading, of considering the work of others, particularly Māori and Pasifika poets. There’s a homage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. An imagined barbecue with Hone Tuwhare. A reminder the notDeclaration of Independence was actually yes, an assertion of mana by the rangatira (for Moana Jackson). There’s walking on Moeraki sand to remember Keri Hulme’s place names.

Voicing: colonisation decolonisation. The poem ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ reminded me of the caution I bring to facts and figures, to encyclopaedic entries, to the way statistics can be hijacked, research findings manipulated. I am reminded of the hidden narratives, the misrepresented experiences, the sidelined voices.

2. Ruapekapeka

I have visited once and seen a hilly field
from memory—hard to take the scene in
without props. There was a church service
and worshippers fled out beyond. Never
swarmed the bunkers and trenches.
Flicked between ancestor Wynyard
and out neighbouring great chief Kawiti.
I do not know the buried knives. We gathered
in this hill of ash, dead bees and pollen.
We left carvings in the earth and flowers there.

 

from ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’

Tūnui | Comet is poetry of acknowledgement. It is poetry of challenge. And it is profoundly moving. In ‘A.O.U’, the poem sings a mihi for Ihumātao. In ‘Feather’s’, the speaker is wearing blood and mud splattered trousers at Parihaka (‘we’re a little band of brothers /marching hundreds strong’) and the feather is in flight:

Whiteness
of the mountain
the ploughs
and feathers
the children’s
singing
witness

I say challenge, do I mean voice? Voicing different versions. Wanting to wrap Old Government House in Treaty pages and lavalavas and knock on the door and ‘say open sesame’. Or stepping back into the sailing boots of Captain James Cook and twisting the eyeglass to imagine afresh the what if.

Or what if I stayed in Aotearoa
and shared our science,
our medical knowledge,
our carpentry and animal husbandry,
our love of books
and conservation values?
What if we had gained the friendship,
love and trust of the Natives,
and returned that equally
at the time, not needing
to constantly gaslight
and to make amends?

 

from ‘Cooking with Gas’

Reading Robert’s intricate, sweetly crafted poetry affects me on so many levels. There is aroha in the pen’s ink, there is fortitude and insight, there is history and there is future. There is uplift, and the need to refresh the eyeglass, the mouthpiece. Read the excellent reviews of Anton Blank and David Eggleton (links below); they celebrate the arrival of a new book by a significant poet in multiple ways, and how it inspires on so many levels. My head is all over the show now, and reviews are getting harder and harder to write, but I hold this book out to you. It is a beacon of light on the horizon, and I am grateful for its presence.

Auckland University Press page
Anton Blank review at ANZL
David Eggleton review at Kete Books

Poetry Shelf review: Lynley Edmeades and Saskia Leek’s Bordering on the Miraculous

Bordering on the Miraculous, Lynley Edmeades and Saskia Leek, Mssey University Press, 2022

The delight of shining—
the slow melt of general
warmth and how the sun
often comes to be the centre.
The reaching suggests a casual
spreading with a few
nostalgic licks of brown.
The circle is the centre
is the place of insistence.
It calmly asks: what if
yellow is the thing?
What if it’s okay to sleep
with the baby in the bed?

 

Lynley Edmeades from Bordering on the Miraculous

 

Great title, inviting cover! Bordering on the Miraculous is the fourth contribution to Lloyd Jones’ Kōrero series. He invites ‘two different kinds of artistic intelligence to work away at a shared topic. In each previous collaboration I have admired the individual contributions separately, and then pondered the hinges that connect them. Each volume has been lovingly produced by Massey University Press, and designed by Gary Stewart.

Lynley Edmeades has published two poetry collections, has a PhD in English from the University of Otago and is the current editor of Landfall. Saskia Leek has an MFA from Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, was nominated for the Walter’s Prize in 2010 for Yellow is the Putty of the World, and is the subject of Desk Collection, a touring exhibition that features two decades of her work.

Lynley’s poems sit alongside Saskia’s monoprints. I was curious to see the latter named as illustrations, and got musing on what an ‘illustration’ is. So often, the illustration is the support act, an enhancement, sometimes representing additional and even sidetracking visual points of view and narratives. I finally left my ‘illustration’ maze, and thought of both poem and image as illumination, the one illuminating the other, each an individual luminosity. Particularly apt with the miracle theme.

The first words that come to mind when I meditate upon Saskia’s images: texture, palette ranging from muted to bolder, gesture, restraint, focal point. Without the presence of the poem – both its physicality and its mystery – I am embedded in body-tingling warmth. Saturated in delectable colour that triggers feeling, ideas, memory, pocket-sized narratives. It is the transcendental uplift of the abstract, the satisfying texture of the physical. I might be traversing backdrop or foreground: curtain, field, tabletop, wall, sky. I am drawn to the alluring focal point: a cup, fruit, an outline, a fried egg, a clock face. Yet nothing is certain, sun might become flower, mandarin might become sun. Printer’s ink becomes gesture, gesture becomes pattern, pattern becomes internal echo. And the process of looking becomes deep satisfying contemplation. Illumination.

The first words that come to mind when I sink into Lynley’s poems: lyrical, surprising, mysterious, physical. Each poem – and I am thinking poetic piece that contributes to a thread, a sequence – holds out co-ordinates and it is over to me to trace a path. It is poetry as gathering, keen-eyed observation, daily living. The accumulation of motifs resembles the music of return: sun, cup, borders, leakage, clock, island, fruit, circles, containment. It is physical but it is also abstract. It is entry into a philosophical realm and then return to a daily world where a baby must be fed or soothed or bathed. Ideas encroach on domestic borders, the domestic infuses contemplation. Nothing is certain. Everything is certain. An island might become slice of toast, a border may be single or many, collapsing or reinforcement. And the process of reading becomes deep satisfying contemplation. Illumination.

The miraculous may small, immense, intangible, a fleeting moment. A baby held. A mountain. The moment you sit at the kitchen window, tasting tea on the tongue, warm cup in hand, a bulging sun hovering.

Lingering with this book reminds me of the miracle of a moment. A need – let’s say an insistence – to fine-tune senses to any number of borders and miracles that arrive in a day. To resist immunity to the miraculous and its myriad borders.

In Bordering on the Miraculous, the bridge between image and word might connect you to the outline of an island, to cups, fruit bowls, the sun. How does it change when you look at a cup shaped by either word or colour? On one page spread you read a poem that offers a list, lying on a bench, of everyday synonyms, and the list includes: ‘like cup / and banana / and purple’. Saskia’s image is gestured in pale purple with a steaming mug and a windowed moon that wobbles and becomes yellow banana cup. The ink gestures like finger painting, the kitchen bench signals physical chores and routines. Drinking the moon. Windowing the mood. Listing the pattern of living.

Bordering on the Miraculous is a perfect retreat when you crave entry into a neighbourhood of warmth, luminosity, wonder. Think dailiness, think mystery. It is an aide to contemplation, and internal calm. It is a book to gift and a book to keep, because it is simply and utterly glorious.

The cup holds some quietness
in the way that some edges hold
roundness. Bring it to your lips
and consider the cinch and slide
of your mouth on its edge.
Even the word has a cupness to it,
surrounded as it is with its
palatable plosives: cup cup.

 

Lynley Edmeades from Bordering on the Miraculous

 

Saskia Leek from Bordering on the Miraculous

Massey University Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Cadence Chung’s Anomalia

anomalia, Cadence Chung, We Are Babies Press, 2022

scrapes and yellow bruises on her knees, she
is learning the terrain, learning that some things
cut and some things stain, she is learning
that the sky above is full of balls of light
that you can’t touch or feel or taste
she is getting used to the injustice of it all.

 

from ‘specimen ‘332: the astronomer’

anomalia is Cadence Chung’s debut collection, and was written during her final year of secondary school in Wellington. She has been writing since she was young, and began publishing in her teens. Cadence has made two demo albums and her musical Blind Faith was staged at her secondary school in 2021. She hit the poetry headlines with ‘Shadows / shades’, a poem she wrote in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam.

The collection’s opening poem, ‘abstract’, underlines how anomalia heightens a sense of the imprecise, the irregular. Stare at a word long enough, say it often enough, and it slips into the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, the unsteady. The word ‘abstract’ may reference a summary that acts as prelude or doorway. It may be ideas that stand as theoretical window. Or the removal that signals a clearance from expected settings. The word/idea/flashpoint bounces me back to the title of the book, and I am musing on how a word wobbles on the line, how this thought or that gesture, this appearance or that choice, deviates from expectation.

Poetry is a perfect place to contest everyday anomalies. The word may wobble on the line, but the word on the line can emit light, can resist subjugation. And Cadence’s poetry demonstrates this.

Poetry is a perfect place to celebrate the present tense, to make use of the gerund, the present participle, in order to keep moving: to keep searching, collecting, surrendering, dissecting, loving, pretending, existing, recurring.

Cadence’s collection is a curious curiosity cabinet with its recurring motifs and themes: cicada, vivisect, blood, science, anxiety, specimens, antique shops, milk(y), love. But it is more than that. It is more than physicality. Cadence has probed into the tender flesh of being human, with scalpel and penetrating lens, and laid the seeping wounds and insights into the clearing that is poem.

There is the insistent and constant need to classify, sort, catalogue or vivisect the specimen. The specimen may be a gathered object, a body’s organ, but I also see it as self. The poet is driven to sort, classify, catalogue, vivisect self. It is the beating heart, the fragile state. It is elusive and unknowable. Self is placed in display cabinet. Self becomes cabinet. Self becomes poem. And if the specimen is dismembered, split open, if the self is vivisected, this is poetry of pain, hurt, danger, vulnerability.

The floating and ambiguous ‘me’ is more than body parts. It is astonishing to peer into the glass cabinet of the poem and hit the sharp edge of anomaly. Where the most important things (I love you) are incommunicable. Where sorrow is easily categorised but matches no category. Where uncertainty is a certainty. Where life is sonnets and getting tender about mushrooms, a flirting moon. And life is ‘patching together / every scrap and semblance i know of’. Also from the poem ‘that’s why they call me missus fahrenheit’: ‘Because everything’s too bitter / to not suck on the sweet bits’.

Oh and scientist poet, poet scientist, becomes dissident. They long to subvert the results, the order – and gore becomes glitter cluster. From ‘anatomy’: ‘keep trying to understand the strange strange anatomy / of existence’.

The collection has hooked onto my skin, down my breathing passages. The poetry is provisional anchor. Searchlight. Distress signal. Gritty field. Self reflection.

anomalia is a breathtaking debut.

like i have admired
everything in my life
with recklessness
and without hesitation

how could i not?
when there are
drawers full of herbs
pictures of distant towns

ripped waistcoats
long-gone family crests
love letters to dispense
from heart-covered machines

for a penny each
how could i not?
when i am so used
to being collected

like dust between pages
like sludge in a gutter
like eyeliner on skin
left to sit

how could i not?
when i am lonely so
everything reminds me
of love

 

from ‘tuesday afternoon, my beloved’

We Are Babies page

Rebecca Hawkes launch speech

We Are Babies pick ‘anatomy’ on Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf conversation: Rebecca Hawkes

Photo credit: Ebony Lamb

although the flighty vampires suckling so obscenely
are the only creatures that really belong in this scene
not the dogs or the willows or the girl
or the gorse with its raptures of yellow

that invasive stellation annexing the slopes
to wrestle black beech at the bush boundary
the smells of pollinated combat mingling by the water
sultry as marzipan and honeydew casting a heady spell

over the colonised valley the weeds like her very presence here
a legacy of other people’s blood and money
though she has yet to understand this history is her own
still finding a place in her bones let alone the land

 

from ‘Noonday gorsebloom’

 

Rebecca Hawkes caught my attention in AUP New Poets 5 (Anna Jackson’s reboot of the series). I became an instant and avid fan. Rebecca’s debut full collection Meat Lovers is now out in the world and is attracting a solar system of love. Freya Daly Sadgrove wrote this for the blurb: ‘Rebecca Hawkes is the unmatched empress of viscera. Thrillingly, perverse, utterly compelling – you eat these poems like overripe peaches, or your own tongue.’

To celebrate poetry, and the arrival of Meat Lovers, Rebecca and I have an ongoing email conversation over the past month or so.

Paula: Before we discuss your sublime debut collection, these are strange and challenging times. I am finding books help. Writing helps. I just read Rachel O’Neill’s stunning Requiem for a Fruit and it was such an uplift. Inspiring. Have you read any books lately that have stuck with you?

Rebecca: Lately I’ve been disappearing into gaming a fair amount -dystopian epic sequel Horizon Forbidden West just came out and I’ve been abandoning our world for the tragic beauty of that story. I’ve also been reading a lot, enjoying the first releases in the bounty of local poetry arriving this year. The Surgeon’s Brain by Oscar Upperton stuck in my craw, as an incisive testament to an extraordinary life. It’s  a powerful reminder of the ongoing need for rediscovery of queer history, and how we continue to fight for our place in the record. It inhabits the character of James Barry, a brilliant transgender military surgeon in the 1800s. Oscar’s work is precise and immersive – it felt like being dropped right into Barry’s whirring mind at various moments throughout his storied life. Reading the book is like speedrunning a novelised biography in a way that fits my fractured attention span, while also having plenty of room to breathe with Barry through his gnarliest thoughts. 

I’ve also just read Chris Tse’s much anticipated Super Model Minority. Rainbows and rage, passion and pride, it meets my pent-up energy in the pandemic. This book evolves Chris’ previous work reckoning with racist and homophobic violence, and the radical possibilities of joy in a doomscroller’s world.

I’ve also been lucky to receive a copy of I got you babe, the first publication by new publishing collective Taraheke/Bushlawyer. I’m so glad to see this in the world. I got you babe includes poems and essays by the five writers, holding their power and care and grief. Importantly, it places the forthcoming anthology No Other Place To Stand (which I’ve been co-editing with essa, Erik and Jordan for the past few years), in a richer, wider ecosystem of critical and creative work around climate, capitalism and colonisation. As we get closer to the anthology launching at last (it has gone to print!), it’s daunting how little has changed since the start of this project and the pandemic – the poems sent to us in 2020 have only become more (alarmingly) prescient.  The critical urgency of I got you babe is a breath of fresh air.

2022 is, despite all the overall horribleness of Current Events, set to be a killer year for poetry. I’m eager for the new books by Anahera Gildea, Michaela Keeble, Anne-Marie Te Whiu, Erik Kennedy, Jordan Hamel, essa may ranapiri, Cadence Chung, Khadro Mohamed, Michael Steven… My bundle from Titus Books just arrived and I’m reading Chris Holdaway’s Gorse Poems tonight!

Meatlovers Rebecca Hawkes, Auckland University Press, 2022

Paula: How was it, writing your sublime Meat Lovers?

Rebecca: Well, I’ve been working towards Meat Lovers for some while. After Softcore coldsores came out in AUP New Poets 5 in 2019, I wanted to do more with some of the down-home-on-the-farm poems, and build a more cohesive full-length collection set firmly in the rural gothic. The title Meat Lovers came early on. It led to the eventual bisected structure of the book, the two halves of one cracked geode. But getting there was a meandering process… 

I bloody love to write a poem, any poem, as a wry joke or full-throated cry. The puzzle and thrill of tinkering with verse ‘til it moves on its own steam and I get to watch the poem skitter off in its own chosen direction is reason enough to keep writing them. And each poem is only one weeny little fragment in the churning vortex / hot mess of whatever’s going on in my head, so a lot of them live in completely different parts of my world that would never touch outside of a word document.  A lot of poems therefore ended up on the cutting-room floor for this manuscript, as I had to corral a more cohesive set of little machines that could work as a pack for a more focused sequence. I had so many ‘spare’ poems that there were more than enough for another rather different manuscript – which in a funny turn of events was a runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Award at OUP last year. Maybe I could have published that altogether more playful and girl-gamerish book first instead, but Meat Lovers holds the work I was most compelled to delve into, mining some darker recesses of my home and heart, and way to still live in some places from my past that I can never really return to.

Once I’d gold-panned for the vibes/themes of this book (food, farming, foolish love) and gathered my first set of poems, structuring it was the challenge – I’d never tried to be so purposeful in a manuscript order before this. I’m grateful for the early eyes of friends like Rebecca K Reilly and essa ranapiri who helped me zero in on what really mattered for the shape of this work. And then of course I kept on writing fresh poems and trying to find places for the new darlings, even as the manuscript really needed to be pruned. How has writing this book been? What is it ever like to make art, to do something freeing but also serious, disarmingly ironic but nonetheless excruciatingly sincere? At turns it has been deep work and easy fun, therapy and tomfoolery, surfing the ecstasy of creation or gruelling arduous labour. Writing the book was humbling, cos making art always kicks my ass, but obviously it’s me doing the kicking as well as my buttcheek with the boot print on it.

‘Frenzy’, Rebecca Hawkes, 2021

Paula: Love the idea that incongruous things in the world co-exist in the neighbourhood of the page! And love how we can never pin the writing process down to one easy answer. Yet for me it is the best thing in this wild and challenging and complicated world. Energy boosting. Heart easing. Body uplifting. Whether reading or writing. I get a similar reaction when I look at your paintings. I have lived with an artist for over thirty years and we inhabit a shared space, but also private and utterly necessarily separate spaces each day. How is it for you both painting and writing? Reading your poems and sinking into your art it is a yin and yang experience for me – the one electrified by the other.

Rebecca: For me the painterly and poetic forms are so intertwined, you could never ask me to choose one, or to go without them. That was why it was so important to me to do my own cover art, even if digital painting isn’t my main medium… and even though what I mostly see in my own paintings is how much learning I still have to do! My necessary poetry-space is laptop-sized and portable, so it’s a more readily accessible art than the ritual of setting up paints and solvents, and then cleaning brushes when I’m bleary-eyed past my bedtime. Sometimes I go months without having – or making – time to paint. But I somehow find the hours when exhibitions are coming up, like right now …

When I’m not both writing and painting I’m not my whole self. They’re things I’ve always done. As a child I constantly drew chimeras, collaging together the most interesting limbs from my gen 1 and 2 Pokémon handbooks and the dinosaurs I was obsessed with – an Arcanine head and mane on a Houndoom’s punk pup frame, equipped with the wings of a Charizard and an Ankylosaurus club tail for bashing. What’s it called when you’re a horse girl but for dragons? I was that. For me a dragon is still the ideal animal, an impossible assemblage of apex attributes, wise and prideful and wild… While my art subjects are often less creaturely now, dragon-building is still basically how I approach both paintings and poems. I rip little shreds of potent detail out of life or dreams, and solder them together to make something that has its own new roar.

Painting is where I most keenly feel the gap between the work I aspire to make and the limits of my capability. I’m not a planner, working out decent compositions in thumbnail sketches. Instead I dive right in with colour and a couple of starting images, then see what happens. Same for poetry, but with poems nobody can see the smudged under-layers lurking beneath the surface of the finished piece… Word docs are forgivingly blank behind the text, so no-one sees my orphanage of random lines, loose chimera limbs waiting to be assembled. 

Right now I’m in that horrible gulf between expectation and reality where I’m blocking in a painting, waiting for images to emerge from the mess, knowing that every mistake will be baked in forever, making slapstick attempts to shield the hideous draft with my whole body when friends visit. But when I am actually at work on a painting I let go of all that shame. I get so absorbed I might forget to breathe, eat, drink, urinate – lost in flow-focus, crouched over my canvas between the TV and the couch. As you say, artists need necessary space, to focus and to dream… but I find I get by with surprisingly little of it. 

When I paint I kneel on the carpet because there is no space in my apartment for a studio (see: me having feelings about this when I went to see Hilma af Klint’s stupendous body of work), and because painting is a kind of prayer activity anyway. It’s an act of faith, isn’t it, to scratch out some small artwork in response to the shabby miracle of the world? Writing is like that too, a deeply interior creative practice that requires me to be open, curious, trusting and responsive to whatever drifts up from my subconscious. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think my processes are all that spiritually glorious, or my artwork particularly accomplished, but when the going’s good it is transporting, and as I give my energy over to a work it breathes life back into me. Am I a pompous loon, indulging in surrender to my own bad art, while the signals of my partner’s PS4 controller and sounds of gamer swordplay beam through my body as he slays monsters in Elden Ring? Sure. But I can’t not do it.

In painting and poems I’m meditative and open, but also working hard in pursuit of something that mainly eludes me – but maybe I’ll get it next time, and this is what keeps me growing (I hope) as an artist. It also keeps me hungry for others’ work. Yes to everything you said about the energising and uplifting nature of sinking into others’ art! Reading outside of myself is crucial to my writing, and looking carefully at other people’s visual art is essential to my painting. Even though making my own art is a solitary act, if I was in a vacuum without others’ work to delight in and explore, I doubt I’d make much of anything. Do you feel this with poetry?

Paula: Absolutely. The sheer joy that the poetry of others gives me is immeasurable. I thrive on it. Like an extreme vitamin boost. For me, the process of writing is intimate, secret, unfathomable, but it is in debt to writing communities past and present. Thus my continued drive to keep Poetry Shelf alive. And I know the doubt, that aching gap between reality and expectation, I don’t know if it ever goes away. I don’t know if I can ever bear to be published again, aside from children’s books. Tell me about your connections to poetry communities. I am thinking of Show Ponies for a start! I asked Chris Tse if he was a social poet, a hermit poet or something in between!

Rebecca: I totally agree on writing being a personal activity but also inextricable from communities around and before us! Even the solitary work of writing is not completely alone… I’m always reading so my writing is inevitably in conversation with other people’s work, and eventually a handful of trusted first-readers who are the unfortunate recipients of my little jokes. Often my poems are elaborate jokes for my friends. I don’t mean to diminish the poetry by saying that… But my Wellington poet-pals are the people whose response most matters to me, and whose support buoys me along, people I trust completely with my beautiful dark twisted fripperies. I also tend to be most motivated to write when there’s a deadline, which is often some event where I know (or hope) people will show up. So even though I’ve written alone for most of my life, I’d characterise myself as a social poet these days, and am so grateful to be part of a lively community.

Show Ponies is its own beast – Freya is the horsepower behind that. But it reflects the creative connections that are possible in a community like ours, where people are good sports with open hearts. There’s a lot of trust involved in doing something big and silly. It’s as vulnerable and sincere as any earnest confessional poem. But a bunch of poets who aren’t afraid of looking like fools together is a powerful thing. To manifest your popstar destiny you have to commit to the bit!

Rebecca: I’ve missed in-person events dearly through the pandemic, and it feels miraculous that Chris and I got to launch our books to people live and in the flesh. I’m interested in what you said here about bearing to be published. Stacey Teague recently asked posted on Twitter I’m trying to figure out why I should try to get my manuscript published and what motivates other people to get their books published and several people have just said “so you can have a party!” which obviously is something you can just do (well, depending on relative pandemic risk) without all the work of writing and vulnerability of publishing at all. For my sins, I was one of the people who’d said ‘party’ right away. But the launch party for a book is so important to me, bringing all someone’s solitary work into a shared public sphere – where the book now exists as its own object and something that will literally belong to other people, outside of the writer’s brain and screens. Aside from getting to celebrate the launch, the meticulously considered process of putting a manuscript together and then having the book itself exist in hard-copy for real has been so rewarding. I’ve been publishing poems around the place for ages, but this first book feels so precious. It’s been a very different process from blatting out last-minute poems and has taught me so much more about this craft. But the blessing of poems is that we can do whatever we want with them, right? There is no requirement to write books, or to publish the poems in any format.

lambs explode onto the scene like popcorn
kernels such freshly detonated fluff
antigravity mammals no heart leaps higher
than the skipping lambs flocked in dozens
barely touching the ground for the joy
full fortnight in which they invent their limbs
before they settle down to their true vocation
grazing themselves into flesh factories
babies babies babies babies
the loin the chop the shank
the juicy vacuum-sealed rack
and great value barbecue meat pack
stunned slit hung bled gutted skinned

 

from ‘Hardcore pastorals’

Paula: Exactly! I was out on a rare road trip across the harbour bridge this morning and it felt like the route was lined with poems! Just the sensation of travelling got miniature poems roaming in my head. Who knows what I will do with them!

I reviewed Meat Lovers for Kete Books and absolutely loved it. First up I loved its music. Like I really love it like I might love a breathtaking album. Do you play a musical instrument? What music do you have on repeat at the moment?

Rebecca: Gosh this is so lovely of you to say! Alas I can’t claim to be a musician. I hammered away on the piano as a child and can mimic several convincing barn animal noises… Maybe I could have a go at being a heavy metal singer, but realistically that’s because my friends are just staggeringly supportive at karaoke. 

I’m charmed by the sounds of words, which I guess is why I like lush OTT poetry – where it’s permissible to load up the adjectives just because they’re delicious, and make subtle music in that way. I truly was trying to think of Meat Lovers as a concept album, actually, with a Side A and Side B, and poems that can be heard alone but build something bigger when they’re experienced in order.

Lately I’m revving songs about sad cowboys and/or the devil. I love a broody lyric. Orville Peck, Nadine Shah, The Veils, Warren Zevon, Julia Jacklin, that sort of thing. The song I was trying to keep up with while running today was Sinnerman (Nina Simone), and the song I’m looping now to tune out and write this is called I just wanna lie in bed and drink my wine (various artists), which is a mood, and just before that it was Head alone (Julia Jacklin)

you have one job
which is to hold

this disturbingly large moth
battering the woven
basket of your fingers

every instinct whining to
close your fingers and crush it

or open your palms
set the fluttering insect loose
free your hands for other tasks

but this is your job
the having and the holding

 

from ‘Poem about my heart’

Paula: I also love the way your collection has heart. If I pick up a collection at the moment and it is devoid of heart it feels like a remote unreachable island. Yours mattered to me. What matters to you when you write? Does heart matter?

Rebecca: For these poems, certainly. This book is one big folded stained paper heart, clumsy and earnest. It’s anchored in my foundational love for the land I grew up on, gratitude for the life my parents gave me, and care for the animals we lived with – and also the felt complications in all those things. Then there’re my attempts to write about the frustrations and discoveries, failure and bliss of eros and romance – about which there’s nothing new to say under the sun but when has that ever stopped a poet? To be honest, usually when I write I try not to worry about whether a poem has heart. Something I’m doing as play might well turn into something true, but only if I don’t try too hard! 

In both writing and reading, different modes call to me at different times, from the sentimental to disaffected… Recently I was bowled over by Frank: Sonnets by Dianne Seuss, which is an often devastating book – poems of desperation, poverty, motherhood, addiction – but often dryly funny. Just observing things, reporting without telling a reader what to feel. Her poems often have a sting in the tail that makes my guts churn, like this one. I’m drawn to gutting poems, just as I am doleful music. 

In poems I’m interested in humour and irony and the sardonic, too – how the heartfelt can be reprocessed into more distanced ways of engaging with our feelings. In editing No Other Place to Stand, I was really interested in the poems that did this. The causes, effects, and injustices of climate change, colonialism and capitalism evoke big primary emotions – Fear, Anger, Grief, Hope, Etcetera – so sometimes the only way into these subjects without getting washed away by those feelings can be to approach through slant wit. Those poems have their place in the body of climate writing alongside the activist battle cries, mourning songs, and stirring polemics that they sit with in the book. Sidling away from pure emotion doesn’t imply a lack of care to me, necessarily – the poems are still being written! And the more I learn about the pressures facing our planet and peoples, the less inclined I am to believe there’s any one right way to respond in our heads and hearts. Plus the sentimental can be treacherous too – I was trying to be careful with this in writing my book, not glorifying my nostalgia or delivering undue condemnations, especially in how I speak about aspects of farming life.

it’s not real cottagecore unless you are up to the elbow in it
blindly groping down the blood-slick canal
as another contraction ripples around your knuckles
the cow is lain on her side licking a mud angel

your hand clutching at the calf’s limp hoof
head torch slipping over your brow
as you affix the chain and brace yourself
to pull and pull until an amniotic spill

when the calf’s head breaches unbreathing
still you pull and bring the whole body wetly
into the cold world you drag the whole darkness
drenched newborn around so the mother can lick

caked salts from her motionless baby

 

from ‘Sparkling bucolic’

Paula: So few women have returned to the farm in their poetry. I am thinking Ruth Dallas and Marty Smith. Ruth had a nostalgic yearning for rural life so wrote farm poems from her Dunedin home to make up for not being there! Marty grew up on a farm and returns to farmland in Horse with Hat. Your return is electrified by edgy realism, razor-edged fantasy, the whole glorious mash of childhood, ‘a rural gothic’. What pulled you back?

Rebecca: Can any of us grow out of our childhoods? The longer I spend away from the farm the more strongly I feel how that land, that life, has shaped me. I have loads of long-winded thoughts about how we live and work and eat and consume and produce on these colonised islands. In my poems it was important for me to write critically and lovingly about these things – to challenge the assumptions I absorbed about the ordinary/natural state of the world as a child, while also celebrating the gifts of my upbringing, the cruelly beautiful lessons and earthing sensory experiences and many ways of relating to other animals. I carry all this with me –I am never without it. I’m glad you registered that not all the book is straight reporting on my life though – there’s plenty of fantasy and fiction in there. Let poets tell lies! 

I think often about Ruth Dallas’ Milking Before Dawn. And Marty’s book made an enormous impression on me – she really encouraged me not to worry too much about being macabre! Rural gothic, as you say, is where I’m most at home. And I was so blessed to journey ‘home’ to the farm through these poems, as well as honour previous selves formed in that place – the girl encountering a mythical panther, the adolescent queen of weed-killers, the teen rapt in agonies finding reasons to fight in the rampant gorse in the riverbed… And I hope some of this work rings true for other queer rural kids, farmhands with a taste for verse, or anyone else seeking poems with bloody dirt still fresh under their fingernails.

Paula: When I first held a copy of my debut collection I burst into tears. There was an overwhelming gap between the poetry in my head and the object I held. I can’t explain it. Something to do with a physical thing and a mental thing. Your collection has just been launched into the world – in a venue with friends and family! How is the book’s arrival for you?

Rebecca: Agh, the tears! The gap between the final proof PDF being sent off to print and the arrival of the first book was hardest for me. I’m always spelunking new depths in the elaborate limestone cave system of my self-doubt (though thankfully have enough robust arrogance to keep making art regardless). Downing tools was difficult because I knew that from here on, the book wouldn’t get any better. I wanted this book to have a wholeness between the art and writing and fussed over it for aaaaages. But at some point the endless incrementally different PDFs became a blur, so it was time to end my meddling. The months away were tough because it was when the book was most abstracted from me, just some soulless files in the ether that I couldn’t ever touch again.

But then receiving that first copy of the book was magic. Tearing into the courier package with my teeth in the work elevator to find this actual book, its own thing, with its own weight and colour and scent, an actual living object in the world freed of my brain and screens… My favourite part of the physical book is the inner covers, with a meaty marbling that I learned to do on a version of Photoshop Elements so ancient that I actually own the program (rather than subscribing annually to “creative cloud”, ew). The pinkness peeps out when the book is read, and radiates onto the creamy paper of the pages. I loved the book so much from first sight, and am so grateful to everyone at AUP for helping manifest it. And the urge to tinker further has ceased. I accept it for what it is, now – a polaroid snippet of part of my work. I no longer worry that it doesn’t contain everything I could ever put on the page, or that the gap between the work preserved in the book and the work I’m presently more interested in making will only get wider. 

Launching with Chris was a dream come true. I admire his work so much, and it’s inspiring to see how his poetic interests have developed from book to book. As fellow Show Ponies, we both love the energy of a real crowd, especially in a space like Meow. We were on the same buzz about wanting to share a live event with our loved ones and communities. There’s something so special about Wellington’s poetry scene – the city is big enough for stuff to happen, but small enough to hold a close-knit community. I’m shriekingly aware that we are not post-pandemic and there was still risk looming over the event (not least cos we were both meant to fly to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival a few days later), but I’m glad we were able to gather, for my dearest mum and Razz to travel there, for Chris and I to thrive on costumes and theatrics, to demand that a handful of people offered us some obligatory praise, and, most importantly, to perform our dramatic recital of Dragula by Rob Zombie.

Rebecca Hawkes grew up on a sheep and beef farm near Methven and now maintains a tenuous work/work balance in Wellington city. With poems widely published in Aotearoa journals, Rebecca’s debut chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 for the reignition of the series in 2019. Meat Lovers is her first full-length collection. Rebecca is an editor for literary journal Sweet Mammalian and the climate change poetry anthology No Other Place to Stand (Auckland University Press, forthcoming)She is a founding member of popstar poets’ performance posse Show Ponies and haphazard coordinator of the Pegasus Books poetry reading series.

Rebecca Hawkes website

Auckland University Press page

Ash Davida Jane reviews Meat Lovers on Nine to Noon

Paula Green review at Kete Books